In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Last Epiphany - the T-Fig edition

A reflection on Matthew 17:1-9 by Jacqueline Schmitt

Okay. So I’m a little late with this entry this week. Pray for me, sisters, there is a lot going on.

I found it funny that Terri would assign Last Epiphany to me, since it is one of my least favorite texts for preaching! Not that I dislike it, but every year, the same story, and sometimes in the summer, too! How much can one say? I’ve done all the clichés, like “standing on the mountain peering down into the valley of Lent” and the symbolism of the booths as small-minded fears of timid Christians who feel the need to box in the Spirit. I think I feel this way because this is a powerful and strange text, so out of the ordinary from the Jesus who walks with us and talks with us. The irony of the blast of the nuclear bomb over Hiroshima coming on the same day as the Feast of the Transfiguration is never lost on me. Terrible glory, terrible horror: how do we hold those two opposing events together in our hearts?
Here’s the other thread running through my head of late: sometimes I wonder if the ordination of women has made any difference at all. Yes, yes, we have an admirable woman as Presiding Bishop, and three of the senior members of her staff are women, and we are very proud of that.

Yes. All true.

But equally true are the shocking statistics of how poorly women clergy are compensated. Did you read that book from the Church Pension Fund? At least $10,000 less at every level of experience, parish size, responsibility. This is not a second career for me, nor do I have a trust fund to fall back on. This is it. As a friend of mine observed several years ago, these guys get ordained, from another career, and they leap-frog right over us, get paid more because they have a family to support. Apparently, this is not yesterday’s news.

Another thing happened in my parish that brought this train of thought right into the home station. I was getting comments about my hair, from older women parishioners. How I really should get my hair cut, how nice it used to look, and then when I did, oh, how nice you look now, blah blah blah. It took me back to my first Sunday in my first church a week after I was ordained, when I wore the wrong shoes. My husband came to coffee hour, and was part of one of these conversations, and noted, when I was ranting about this later at home, “I had no idea that still went on for you. I used to get this when I was a young cleric, but no one has ever questioned my authority like that.”

Stuff like this takes its toll. I’m grateful to be closer to retirement than to that first day of ordained ministry, and I’m grateful that the Pension Fund will treat me well, and that I, unlike many other underpaid women in the work force, will get a pension.

So why do people in the pews focus on the priest’s haircut? I think it has to do with church architecture, which will bring me back to the story of the Transfiguration and why I ask for your prayers.

My church has a marble altar stuck to the wall, and the parishioners prefer – love! –an eastward-facing celebration. The bishop’s telling them they had to move it only made them love it even more, and for the past two years I’ve done it: trotted out my distant memories of Mass Class at General Seminary, dusted off elevations and tricky turns on narrow steps, climbed the heights of the pulpit, all that.

Not only the words we pray, but the way we pray, and where we pray form us in our faith. This kind of church architecture forms people into passive sheep, an audience – not the laos, the people of God, participating in the leadership of their own community, full members of the body of Christ and the household of God. Members of such congregations occasionally rise up as snipers, taking aim at things which are out of place, such as the priest’s hair, or talk of lay leadership, or mission, or the possibility that the reason that no one new comes to this church anymore is that there is no room for newcomers in the empty pews.

“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”

Peter, James and John had seen the big stuff, and it was dazzling and terrifying and all they could do was try to protect themselves by falling to the ground. The ordination of women, or liturgical renewal, or renovations in church architecture are trivial in comparison with the vision of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. But they – the recent changes in our church -- are, we have all believed, signs pointing the way to the inbreaking of the realm of God – ways to organize our human lives so that we can begin to act and live and pray and breathe the way God would have us be.

We had a visit from the Holy Spirit this winter, when the heating pipes burst and we were forced to worship in a small chapel, with a free-standing altar and chairs arranged in rows, like a choir, facing each other. It’s warm, but uncomfortably intimate.

So pray for me, sisters, and for my congregation, on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, when I tell them that when we move back into the church for Palm Sunday, the pews will be moved, the altar will be in the midst of the people, and God will be frighteningly dislodged from the liturgical east. Pray that I may find the words of Jesus to say, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

10 comments:

mompriest said...

Jackie, I've had similar comments - always a little uncomfortable...and, from our Keeping God's People Safe training, my parish learned that it is inappropriate to make comments like these to anyone, let alone the priest.

Prayers for you and your congregation. I pray they feel the Holy Spirit and are willing to be guided into a new, transformational way of worship...

Oh, I'd like to take credit...but I was just scheduling folks in the order we went the last time - so the fact that you got T-Fig, is more about the Holy Spirit than me.... :-)

Mother Laura said...

Thank you for this powerful reflection on the many layers of injustice and inappropriate behavior to which female clergy are still subjected.

I personally share your discomfort with the *ad orientem* position and its possible implications, and certainly respect your frustration in being forced to use it. And I pray that the transition for your parish to be emotionally safe and grace-filled for all concerned.

However, I don't know if it is fair to automatically equate it with lay passivity and disempowerment. It is a little ironic here where the laity apparently find it helpful for their worship and spiritual growth, and the bishop is using his authority to impose the change. Liturgical tastes and preferences are so individual, and so individually layered with different emotional "buttons," that it's hard not to impute moral or spiritual superiority to our own even while making legitimate arguments, for instance about inclusive/expansive language (I definitely include myself in this temptation).

I am sensitive to this because I love and respect some people, quite progressive in terms of feminism, LGBT rights, etc., who greatly prefer the eastward position and find it less clerical in the sense of decreasing the focus on the personality of the priest (like the grille in confession). Also, as a former lay RC I remember many a parish where priests or lay liturgists would forbid people to kneel with a similar argument that it was inherently clerical and disempowering, which wasn't my personal experience--or announce that pews were likewise, and hand the laypeople a bill for a several hundred thousand dollar renovation which included replacing them with chairs.

mompriest said...

The first time I experienced an "East" facing altar was in "play" church at seminary where we had to pretend to Preside at a service with our back to the congregation. My first thought was, how cool! It feels like the priest is just one of us, all of us facing the same way.

But, later, when I Presided at such a service, I truly disliked it. It felt very diconnected to the people and to the service...like Presiding alone.

I guess if I were to Preside at an East facing service it would have to be at an altar placed in the center of the congregation with people all around me, not with me at a far end with everyone else behind me.

And, no matter what, don't say anything about my hair or my shoes...

mompriest said...

I've been thinking more about this conversation...

another point for us to remember...Laura offers us a valuable perspective - that this may be a deeply spiritual practice for the people in this parish - even as it is one no longer practiced in most churches. A reminder to consider this...

But it is also possible that this is just another way that a congregation is making an idol of comfort....

Regardless...Prayers for you Jackie and your parish. May you navigate this difficult conversation filled with God's grace and may the Holy Spirit move...

Mother Laura said...

Great points, Mompriest. Who knows if their preference is for spiritually "good" or "bad" reasons, or a combination?
What is clear is that they are losing on this one, will be angry and disappointed, and possibly take it out on Jackie. Yuk.

They might take it better if they hear some validation of their feelings and the difficulty of change, even reasonable change instituted by legitimate authority, rather than even a slight implication that their preferences are suspect and they "should" like the new way because it's really better for them. (Not that you'd say that, of course, Jackie, and as active parish clergy you undoubtedly know these dynamics far better than I do. I just know what I would find easier to hear in a situation where my heartfelt worship preferences did not carry the day). Perhaps there would also be some way to listen to the reasons they like this and offer compromise you can live with elsewhere to achieve the same goals....Might make them feel more empowered which, as you point out, is such a crucial goal.

Elizabeth Morris said...

Jackie, you go, gal. But do keep talking, talking, talking to everyone in the congregation -- and don't forget to help them see the hand of the Holy Spirit in everyday life, even burst pipes.

Anonymous said...

Jackie, Thinking about the recent chicago election and the dilemmas about being both too so called "feminine" and too "feminist" you can't women and maybe we don't want too. I have heard from some younger women that the issues of actual sexual harassment are very real especially in the parishes where they serve as a single woman often in isolated or suburban places. WE have a long way to go. And the question you raise about what difference ordination has really made in the church is a real one. Sometimes I think we are kidding ourselves! On the question of the east facing altar--- Years ago when I was doing an ecumenical gig in a lutheran church in Germany and the altar was east facing, our theology and maybe just the spin was that in facing the same direction as everyone else we proclaimed our solidarity with all who were worshipping. Yes, we were the leader that day but we were all the same as we faced the samed direction. There were no secrets and no magic in the eucharistic celebration ---just worship together.. that worked for me. Though in another parish more recently I was grateful one day when the plaster fell onto the altar---during the celebration of the Eucharist and from that moment on it was just "safer" to use a table in the midst of the congregation... definitely changed the sense of being together. in any case will be thinking and praying in these times as big changes happen in your parish...

margaret said...

actually, didn't mean that last to be anonymous.... never did lilke that as a name for a woman!! pressed the wrong button.

Katherine E. said...

Thanks for your thoughtfl reflection, Jackie, and to everyone for the interesting conversation. Not having any experience whatsoever with the importance of facing east--or west, for that matter!--in worship, I can't add much to the conversation. Change can be scary, for sure. I hope this change goes well, Jackie, and that your folks open themselves, trustingly, to that unpredictable blowing wind of the Spirit!

Jacqueline Schmitt said...

Dear All -- I'm delighted with this conversation. Such issues! Such helpful and interesting thoughts!!
Out parish is definitely on the way. The advantage of this church architecture is that it really is a wide basilica-like space, meaning we are able to move pews and spread out in the nave without changing the "old sacred space" of the altar, choir and pulpit. The Easter flowers can look the same.
This parish was one for the first that experienced a public, nasty split over women, homosexuality, the authority of scripture and bishop, about 10 yrs ago -- the former priest took the people he had gathered around him down the same street to a new church with the same name but under the Diocese of Rwanda. His 20+ year tenure as rector was marked by authoritarianism and the suppression of lay authority, esp. that of women. The half-dozen remnant (faithful, good, not homophobic or anti-women) are marked by those decades of passive or angry-passive resistance. That "deer-in-the-headlights" sort of look led me to resonate with Charles Fulton's argument about how the architecture of pews facing east with one focal point functioned as the incubator of passivity rather than engagement, encouraging a congregation as audience rather than participants.
There is some resistance as well as a continuing leaving (and dying) of people from the old congregation. I didn't cause the split, and as the one presiding over the creation of a new congregation, I know I am the focus of a whole constellation of complicated feelings of loss, grief, anger. But the bishop (in this case a woman) is right in that change has to happen or there will be no one in those pews in 5 years and we will be paying for an empty building.
Such change is hard, across the church -- we women can be as skilled and professional and spiritually grounded as any priests can be, and yet in our very persons we embody the tsunami of cultural change -- and here, right in the heart of the institution to which some people come expecting the permanence of the church of their childhood.